The Florida Gators’ national championship run last year was somewhat of a pipe dream when the season began. Everyone knew the Gators had the kind of skill players and nasty defense it takes to contend, but there was one spot on offense that stood out like a sore thumb and that was the offensive line. The Gators were replacing four starters and the fifth starter was changing positions.
Combined, they had a grand total of 17 starts, which isn’t a formula for success but success is what they found. Not only did the line play way past expectations, four of those starters return and they should be improved. There also seems to be quality depth for offensive line coach Steve Addazio to work with.
The Florida line of 2006 made progress as the Gators fought their way through the season. The mental mistakes that showed up in early games, disappeared in the last third of the season as the Gators picked up momentum in their run to the national title. By the time the BCS National Championship Game arrived in January, Florida’s offensive line was a heck of a group to reckon with. The goal for 2007 is to pick up where they left off last year and take the line play to an entirely new level.
“Obviously we are in a different stage than a year ago,” Addazio told Gator Country. “We had no experience last year and there was a lot of unknown. We didn’t feel good about where we were going to be. Now we have some guys that have played a lot of ball. We feel like we have great chemistry up front. It is a group that has a great passion to use the fundamentals of the game.”
The Gators will enter the season with a sophomore quarterback in Tim Tebow. Although Tebow played a lot in 2006, now he is the starter and that means this is going to be an adjustment for him. One thing he won’t have to worry about is protection on the flanks with returning starters at both the tackles, seniors Phil Trautwein (6-6. 298) and Carlton Medder (6-5, 319). There are talented backups ready to step in and play, also.
Veterans who know how to handle the speed on the edge is a big plus, says Addazio.
“I think it is real big with the great edge rushers in our league,” Addazio said. “Carlton and Phil have proven that they will do a great job with the protection aspect. (Junior) Jason Watkins (6-6, 302) has played a bunch of ball both at tackle and tight end. You have (freshmen) Marcus Gilbert (6-5, 296) and Carl Johnson (6-5, 342), they are two real talented football players. At the same time, we are going to play our five best players. If a guy on the edge needs to go inside, then we will do it … we just want to get a group of eight or nine ready to go instead of five.”
One of the things the current staff looks at in offensive linemen when they recruit is the flexibility. They want to know if the young men are smart enough, quick enough, strong enough, and agile enough to play multiple positions along the line if needed. This is a group of linemen that are just that and Addazio believes he can find a very strong group of eight or nine to get through this season in a big way.
“We are going to have an eight-strong group, that is real important,” he said. “I am responsible for that whole offensive line right now and inside and out we are going to make sure the best five are playing. I am into guys being interchangeable up front. I am into guards being able to play tackle, tackles playing guard, guards playing center. In today’s game you have to be versatile,. We are in a rough, physical, tough conference.”
Two other starting spots are taken going into the fall. Left guard junior Jim Tartt (6-3, 316) stayed healthy for the first time all season in 2006 and looks to have another productive year. Senior center Drew Miller (6-5, 304) has played tackle, guard, and is now the starting center. He is probably the best lineman in a very good group.
“Jim Tartt has had a great off-season and a good spring practice, he has worked real hard,” Addazio said. “…Tartt is a big strong powerful guy and is working real hard this summer to improve his balance and football position and that will help with his pass protection. Drew has a great feel for the whole offense, playing tackle, guard, and center now. [He] is a phenomenal athlete, he is very explosive with real powerful legs at the point of attack. He can pull and move and is real powerful. It is really key to that position and he has all of that.”
There are four spots that are taken for the start of fall drills, that leaves one to fill. There is a lot of competition to get on the field for that one spot in the fall. Freshmen Corey Hobbs (6-3, 303), Maurice Hurt (6-2, 327), Mike Pouncey (6-4, 313), Maurkice Pouncey (6-4, 311), and James Wilson (6-5, 305) will all vie for a chance to start at the position. Again, it is all about getting the best five guys on the field regardless of the position they may project to.
“The right guard is a wide open position right now,” Addazio said. “We have Mo Hurt, the Pounceys, Marcus Gilbert, and Carl Johnson all working real hard.”
One of the critical things to establish this fall is a backup to Drew Miller at center. Miller may have to moss some time or may have to switch to another position due to injury, so a second center is key. It is a position that touches the ball on every play and basically the starting gun for the entire offense, it’s importance cannot be overstated.
“Mo Hurt has taken a bunch of snaps, (freshman) Jim Barrie, (sophomore) Eddie Haupt, Phil Trautwein, and even Carl Johnson can snap the ball,” Addazio said. “There is no question we need to have someone ready to go in the beginning. I think the overall understanding of the front helps the guys at that position. Secondly, I think it is a flat repetition deal, they just need to snap the ball until it becomes second nature. I also think you need to have quick feet. The guys that can accelerate quickly are natural (for the position).
Addazio really likes the young talent slotted behind Miller at the moment.
“The young guys are doing well there,” he said. “Eddie Haupt is doing well and Jim Barrie didn’t practice there all spring and boom he was the center for the spring game.”
HOLLYWOOD’S TAKE: After interviewing and chatting with the staff over the off-season I think they have a group of about a dozen players that really fit the things they want to do on the offensive line. They want to find nine guys to get ready for every Saturday and they should be able to really get a great group from those twelve. The four starters are pretty set, but I keep hearing we really need to watch out for the Pounceys and James Wilson to make a serious move this year.